Greene: Small Town, Big Names

Sep 30, 2013

Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, is buried in Brattleboro, having lived part time in southern VT for the last 26 years of his life. He relished his time here, and even devised a good way to scare away bears when he and his wife were out berry picking, by leaving Mozart blasting in his car’s sound system. It did the trick.

He was also fond of Brattleboro. So when Sandy Rouse, who owned the Book Cellar in 2001, heard that he wanted to do something for the town, she jumped at the chance to host some sort of event. But then Bellow got pneumonia, and the project was tabled.

In the summer of 2002, Rouse ran into one of his friends who said that he was still game for an appearance. Both Rouse and Brattleboro Literary Festival co-founder Dick Burns had been to literary festivals and thought maybe they could pull one off in town.

It also happened that The New England Booksellers Association was launching an effort to bring big name authors to small towns. And with its five bookstores, three new, two used, Brattleboro was an ideal candidate. That first year brought authors Chris Bohjalian, Mark Corvo and Katherine Davis, as well as Bellow, for what turned out to be his last public appearance.

The festival came together very quickly, and Rouse says they had to play catch-up for the next few years - building infrastructure, creating special events for authors, and doing long range planning.

Rouse attributes a lot of the Lit Fest’s success to its small scale. It’s not held in some giant Javits center type building. People can enjoy exploring the town as they move from one venue to another.

Rouse says it’s an interesting process to try to discern what authors will be in demand a year down the road. Committee members follow the publishing industry carefully, attend trade shows and local readings to see how writers present their material.

One of Rouse’s goals with the Festival is to expand people’s horizons - by bringing writers from a distance, whose subjects range widely. It’s a gamble for writers to travel long distances, because very few publishers pay author expenses on tour any more.

In a little over ten years the Lit fest went from a fledgling effort to being named one of the top five upcoming literary festivals in the country by The Writers’ Circle, along with festivals in Portland Oregon, Vancouver and Washington D.C.

Rouse and Burns have also consulted with organizers trying to get other festivals off the ground, including Bookstock in Woodstock, VT and the Nantucket Book Festival.

When asked for advice on starting a literary festival, Rouse says, “It’s not something you try to do alone. In fact, it takes a whole village to put on a Literary Festival.”